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Description: Empathy is always good, right? Everyone would be a better person and make better, more moral, decisions if they more actively engaged with others in an empathetic manner, right? Well, that may largely be true but can you think of situations where that might not be true or where, in fact the exact opposite might be true? Does empathy have a dark side? In the article linked below a story is presented that was used in research into this question. The article will give you instructions for two ways of reading the story. Read it each way, think about the results and then read the rest of the article.

Source: Empathy is crucial to being a good person, right? Think Again, Nathalia Gjersoe, Science, The Guardian.

Date: February 7, 2017


Links:  Article Link —

The article points out that empathy typically involves paying close attention to the situations or circumstances that wrap up around particular individuals and on the feelings, thoughts and experiences of those particular individuals. It could be said that our empathetic tendencies evolved specifically to help us to see and feel with the situations on particular other individuals with whom we interact. This would be a good thing for couples, for parents and children, for close friends or for members of any small mutually dependent social group. However, the suggestion is that there are some situations where we may need to engage in “in-principle empathy,” that is to step back from an individual’s situation and prepare to act (or not act) based on larger logical, moral or ethical principles or guidelines. Charitable medical assistance or organ donor programs are examples of situations where individually focused empathy may not lead to the most just decisions. So keep on being empathic but check now and again that the social contexts in which you are deploying your empathic abilities are appropriate ones.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is empathy and how does it work?
  2. When should we think twice before deploying our basic empathic skills?
  3. How should we think or behave if we want to make sure we are not jumping too quickly into an empathic response to a person in a particular situation?

References (Read Further):

Batson, C. D. (2010). Empathy-induced altruistic motivation. Prosocial motives, emotions, and behavior: The better angels of our nature, 15-34.

Batson, C. D., Ahmad, N., Yin, J., Bedell, S. J., Johnson, J. W., & Templin, C. M. (1999). Two threats to the common good: Self-interested egoism and empathy-induced altruism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(1), 3-16.

Batson, C. Daniel; Klein, Tricia R.; Highberger, Lori; Shaw, Laura L. (1995) Immorality from empathy-induced altruism: When compassion and justice conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 68(6), Jun 1995, 1042-1054.

Contreras-Huerta, L. S., Baker, K. S., Reynolds, K. J., Batalha, L., & Cunnington, R. (2013). Racial bias in neural empathic responses to pain. PLoS One, 8(12), e84001.

Harris, L. T., & Fiske, S. T. (2015). Dehumanized perception. Zeitschrift für Psychologie.

Buffone, A. E., & Poulin, M. J. (2014). Empathy, target distress, and neurohormone genes interact to predict aggression for others–even without provocation. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 40(11), 1406-1422.